Today we check out the other main sights of Beijing: the Temple of Heaven and the Lama Temple. Beijing is a huge city and not at all walkable, especially in this cold weather, so we decide to take the metro to all the sights. Surprisingly for a capital of its size, Beijing’s metro only opened in 1970s and is still being actively built with only 9 lines currently completed. When we enter the metro, there is a security station puts all bags through an airport-like xray machine. It doesn’t make sense that they only check the bags, since you could bring anything in under your jacket if you wanted to. Buying tickets is pretty straight forward: the touch screen ticket machine has instructions in English and takes 5, 10, 50 or 100 Y notes but gives you change only in 1Y coins. One way fare costs 2Y regardless of distance. The trains are very modern, with lights over each door showing you where you are along the metro line you are traveling. One small design useability gripe is that the lights of the stations you passed turn green, while the ones you haven’t reached yet are red. It should be the other way around, and we kept getting confused about which direction we are going. A little smart design would go a long way.
When we exit the station, it’s not clear where to go to find the Temple of Heaven, all we know is that it should be in the middle of a large park. The area is a lived in neighborhood, more run down and cluttered than the center and its glitzy hotels. Outside the train station poor vendors are selling cooked potatoes or yams, which roasted on a fire in a rusty steel trash can which is attached to the back of a tricycle. We go on a bridge over the road to see if we can spot the Temple roof, no temple, but we see some trees and head in that direction. Walking along the road, we pass some soviet style four story panel housing, with crumbling balconies, makeshift bars on windows and carpets or bed sheets roasting in the sun. Past the houses we find the entrance. Many times the temples are hidden like this, among old decrepit buildings, next to busy roads and highways, next to shopping streets and restaurants. You take a few steps off a busy street and find yourself in another century and another world.
The Temple of Heaven, literally the Altar of Heaven is a complex of Taoist buildings situated in the southeastern part of central Beijing, in Xuanwu District. The complex was visited by the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for annual ceremonies of prayer to Heaven for a good harvest. The temple complex is surrounded by a large park, where locals, mostly retirees, congregate to enjoy the day, exercise, dance, play cards and other games.
We are really cold going through the park in the shade of the trees. There are groups of women retirees dancing clumsily to gym workout music, other coed groups doing Tao chi, while some younger people are playing a foot badminton type game. They asked us to join the game, but that just turned out a ploy to try to sell us the foot badminton toy. Kind of sick of this disingenuous attitude to tourists, on every corner you can expect someone to trick you, try to sell you something, or rip you off. Museum type displays in an accompanying building to the temple are pretty bad, no interesting displays and a very thinly written history of the temple. More wall space is devoted to some communist party leader saving the temple during the Cultural Revolution. The temple building looks like it was built and painted just yesterday. Overall the temple is pretty cool, and we took some nice pictures, but you can’t go inside and we are not too impressed. Probably we feel this way because the architecture is exactly the same as the Forbidden City, and it all looks freshly painted and recently built, so there is no air of history to it.
After walking through the park and visiting a couple other small temples, it gets really windy and even colder, so we head past the retirees playing cards back to the metro. We take the metro to the Buddhist Lama Temple.
Formerly an imperial palace, later converted into a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the 18th century, the Lama Temple is one of Beijing’s most famous monasteries. It too is situated in a regular neighborhood, hidden behind modern buildings and just off a busy street; the only way you know it’s around is the number of incense shops all along the street next to the entrance.
The temple is actually a collection of halls with landscaped courtyards and incense burners in front of the temple buildings. Each building contains multiple statues of various Buddhas made from bronze, wood, or stone and dressed in the finest colorful clothes. The halls are watched over by monks that live in the complex. Many people that were visiting the complex were actually Buddhist believers, so they would go through all the rituals in front of every building. First they would come up to a hall, burn incense outside of it and bow multiple times on a special prayer stool facing towards the building. After the ritual with the incense they would go inside, and repeat the praying and bowing in front of each statue of a Buddha. For these numerous prayer rituals each person carried a whole box of incense that they brought with them. We saw people trying to go to literally each of the 15-20 buildings and praying in front of each of the 5-10 Buddha statues in each building. That could be something like 100-200 prayer rituals to perform in a visit.
The most impressive hall is the Pavilion of Infinite Happiness: The last main hall, it is the highest hall of this temple. In the main hall, a huge statue of Maitreya Buddha is positioned in the center, the entire statue is carved from a rare sandal tree is 26 meters (85 feet) in height and eight meters (26 feet) in diameter, with eight meters (26 feet) buried under the ground. The statue fills up the small building up to the ceiling; they must have built the building around the statue.
After the Buddhist temple we decide to go try shopping for warm clothes again. We go to an area where there is supposed to be a Chinese department store with decent prices without bargaining. While walking along some dark neighborhoods we see quite a lot of hair dresser/barber shops. As we pass the windows it’s outfitted like a regular hair salon with chairs and mirrors and consoles, but inside are young girls dressed in very short sexy outfits. First we thought naively that its just a hip and modern hair dresser, but after passing a couple we realize that no matter how hip, she is not going to be wearing leather, stilettos and push up bras in -4C weather. They actually have little cots set up to the side behind drapes, to take a client for some privacy, away from the open windows. Can never look at a barbershop without suspicion now.
The department store turns out to be a bad lead for affordable Chinese brands, only thing we find is regular American brands like Nike for outrageous prices and a woman stalker who wants to “help us” find what we need.
Desperate we cross the street to a shabby looking mall with lots of chinese tourist buses parked out-front. This time it’s exactly what we are looking for – 5 levels of vendors, selling a wide range of knock offs. This isn’t a very touristy knock off market, since they all look astonished to see us walking around there and don’t even pester us much. There is a lot of very obvious crap here with sawn on fake labels. We just need some cheap coats and hats, not caring about labels. The first jacket we try to haggle on, the vendor girl types on her calculator 980 Yuan!!! As we are about to leave, she asks for us to type out a price on the calculator. She gets a 50 Yuan typed back. She acts totally incredulous as if offended to the core, and doesn’t even try to stop us as we leave. And this was an obviously fake, crappy, badly sawn jacket, with a zipper that looked like it was about to come apart. Go figure. After walking around and haggling a hat down to 20 Y from 35 Y. We find a man’s jacket that seems decent. This time the vendor wants 480 Y, but after going back and forth, pleading that she is not making any money, fake leaving and her running after us, grabbing our hands, etc..etc we leave with a Chinese brand looking jacket for 170 Yuan. WARMTH!!!!
Both happier to get out of there and much warmer we take the metro to Ghost street. Red lanterns, traditional courtyards, hundreds of restaurants along the street. This is Guijie Street, Beijing’s famous eating street, known to locals as ‘Ghost Street’. The name of the street is said to derive from Beijing’s old “Ghost Fairs”. These fairs mainly sold groceries from late at night until dawn. The kerosene lamps of the shops formed a ghostly sight from which the name “Ghost Fair” derived. The street’s restaurants have hundreds of red lanterns hanging outside, creating a canopy of lights over the sidewalk. These are some of the best restaurants in the city, with well heeled parking attendants to park your car, dressed in long green military style winter coats. We pick one of these restaurants and try some really good, but extremely spicy snails. We left the restaurant a little hungry and decide to never get food labeled “spicy” with red peppers on the picture ever again.
Roma and Natalia are world travelers, photographers, and an all around fun couple. When they are not travelling far away continents or driving around USA in their trusted Highlander, they can be found in San Francisco, California.